PhotoAnything connected to the Internet has the potential to be hacked, so it's probably no surprise to learn that security experts predict hackers will be a problem when self-driving cars become a reality.

Of course, most new cars are already hackable, thanks to all their network-connected systems. In February, Senator Ed Markey of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee released a staff report showing that “Nearly 100 percent of [new] vehicles on the market include wireless technologies that could pose vulnerabilities to hacking or privacy intrusions.” And – barring some massive improvement in Internet security these next few years – driverless cars will have the same vulnerability.

Driverless cars are currently predicted to hit American roads by 2020 if not sooner. The cars are equipped with cameras, electronic sensors, sonar, radar and LIDAR (light detection and ranging). And the security firm Mission Secure has shown that such systems are indeed vulnerable to hack attacks:

“One attack scenario forces the car to accelerate, rather than brake, even though the obstacle avoidance system (using LIDAR) detects an object in front of the car. Rather than slowing down, the car hits the object in front of it at high speed causing damage to the car and potential threat to the life and safety of the passengers in the car under attack and in the car being struck.”

Getaway car

Indeed, the criminal potential of such hackings is limited only by the criminals' own imagination (and hacking skills): if you're planning to commit a major crime this weekend, your getaway chances will greatly increase if you can disable every cop car in the city, first.

Last month, the Commonwealth of Virginia hired several companies including Mission Secure to study the question of how much damage hackers could potentially do to cars currently in the Virginia State Police fleet — such as controlling a car's acceleration, or deploying airbags while the driver is going at high speed.

The study is still ongoing, but most likely the answer will prove to be “If it's network-connected, hackers can get at it.” It's true of human-driven cars with Internet connections, and it'll be just as true of the driverless cars predicted to hit American roads in less than five years.

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